Ether

by Jason Tougaw

The parking lot that's the scene for this probably false memory is located between the Pacific Coast Highway and Cardiff State Beach. It's darker at night.

It’s midnight. Charlie and Cathy are parked at Cardiff beach in his faded metallic brown El Camino–part car, part truck. I’m between them on the front seat, face up, wriggling on flaking gold vinyl. Cathy is red-faced from crying. “Jennifer told me where you were. I know what you were doing.” The experiment failed. Those few months living like a family stretched and strained them.

“Fuck Jennifer,” Charlie says. “What the hell does she know?”

“Heroin, Charlie? Heroin?”

Charlie shrugs and squints. “You don’t get it,” he says.

“You’re right, Charlie, I don’t. I don’t get the fact that you have a baby, an infant who’s been sick practically his whole life, who still has a raw scar across half his stomach. And you’re out shooting heroin. I don’t get it. Maybe I’m just not smart enough.”

“Shut the hell up. Shut up. Be silent.”

“Take a look at that baby. Take a hard look.”

“You care so much about the baby you’re gonna use him as a shield.”

“Heroin,” she yowls. Her voice cracks in its higher register. The word sounds obscene, slowed down and drawn out like a malfunctioning eight-track tape: “Haaaiiiirrooohhhiiiiinnnnn.”  She doesn’t say smack or horse or junk, despite all the friends she has who live and die on it.

“Jason,” he says. “Cathy, wait. Wait.”

“Are you high now?”

“Just wait. Just listen.”

“Are you?”

Can a person be enraged on heroin? She doesn’t wait to find out. She runs through the night with me in her arms. When she reaches the pay phone outside the Fish House West, she collapses into it and shuts the door. “Doug, it’s Cathy. Can you pick me up?”

She holds me under her macramé sweater while we wait, closing its spear-head wooden fasteners to tuck me in against her breast. At least I’m too young to know what’s going on, too young to remember, she tells herself.

 

The front seat of the brown metallic El Camino is my first memory. I must have fabricated it later, since I was still an infant, too young to remember. I’m sure that car never existed. But if I made it up, I did it by the time I was six or seven, because it’s a memory I carried all through childhood: a car, a big man, good looking, slow moving, my mom, with long straightened hair, screaming heroin.

I’ve never tried heroin. I heard a lot about it when I was a kid. “I hate heroin,” my mom would always say. “It killed so many of my friends.” I knew this was an indirect reference to my father. We always called him Charlie, never father or dad. The word heroin conjured Charlie’s image: hazy, floating, out of reach, but constantly there.

The ghost of heroin—which is also the ghost of Charlie—adds another hazy layer of unreality to my childhood. I can only imagine what it feels like, yet its feeling colored everything. When I was a teenager, I became obsessed with Jean Cocteau and his opium. I even tattooed Cocteau’s Orpheus on my arm. I didn’t make the connection between the French artist and my imprisoned father. But an opiate is an opiate. As far as I can tell, it evaporates pain and manufactures peace.

Charlie’s brain, like all brains, contained built-in receptors for heroin—because our bodies traffic in their own natural opiates. The neuroscientists call them opioids. These receptors—they’re called kappa, mu, and delta—attach to a cell’s oily surface and dig roots. The calculated prick of an acupuncture needle can incite the circulation of opioids. So can a sugar pill, or a severe accident or trauma. Charlie preferred the reliability of a syringe full of man-made opiates.

Charlie already knew his brain was an illusionist. LSD had taught him that. But an opiate illusion is less work than an acid trip. Opiates target an area of the brain called the nucleus acumbens—the pleasure center, a small glob of cells housed in the forebrain and networked directly to the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster responsible for basic emotions like fear, anger, and pleasure. The nucleus acumbens traffics in dopamine, and so the theory goes that it can tip the amygdala’s balance toward pleasure and away from fear and anger. Roughly speaking, this is how Charlie found the peace he must have been after in the prick of a needle.

The natural opiates live in the nervous system. When things get really bad, they have to be able to manufacture well-being from scratch. They replace external horror or pain with relative internal ease, restore homeostasis. They don’t have to wait for an injection or a decision or even a craving. But the manufactured cousins have a secret weapon: addiction. Their doses can be manipulated. They seduce bodies for whom the ordinary rhythms of daily life are unbearable, offer to drown those rhythms in their shadowy haze. When they gain entry to the nervous system, they disarm their endogenous cousins. The body enters into a symbiotic relationship with its opiate of choice, achieving a new, drugged out homeostasis.

Opiates short-circuit the nervous system and wash the outside world in a shadowy haze. The shadows subsume sharp corners and hard facts. Obstacles give way to open road. Opioid realism is thoroughly convincing.

I haven’t entirely given up blaming him, but I wonder what it was in Charlie that made the hard corners too hard and the rhythms of daily life unbearable. Why did he need heroin to create an illusion of homeostasis? Was it something in his cells, something I might have inherited? Was it something that happened to him, and if it was, did I inherit that, in the form of the hazy heroin ghost of him that trails me through life?

 

After the metallic car, I have two kinds of early memory: the ones I think I actually remember and those implanted by adults repeating stories of my early life until I remember them like they’re my own. Both memories come in hazy bubbles, a nearly palpable aura that acts like gentle force field between me and the world. The haze helped me cope: it distracted me from the people around me and enabled me to live among them.

The haze is kind of like physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s ether. A century and a half ago, Maxwell postulated that Newtonian matter was composed of microscopic electro-magnetic waves. Light, he suggested, was made of waves of oscillating fluid called the ether. This fluid was both a bridge and a wall between physical reality and the invisible heavens. Gravity and substance, Maxwell thought, were products of constant collisions between matter and ether.

But nobody could find the ether, and Einstein simplified things, demonstrating a direct relationship between mass and energy. Ether, the middleman, was cut out, disqualified by scientific observation. Protons and electrons were all there were.

I hold onto the idea that ether may be real, that I might have been floating in it when I activated the hazy force field I cultivated to insulate myself from the worst of it. It felt physical, not just psychological or metaphorical, like a subatomic transaction between my body and its environment, something like the blur of lights that go off as a pinball bounces around the inside its machine. I always thought of the force field as separating me from my mom, her boyfriends, and everybody else, really. But instead, it helped me live with them. It was a connective tissue that bound me with the family organism.

Writing involves diving into ether, to find the currents of other swimmers there. Like my childhood hope for ether, writing can seem isolating and protective. For better or worse, though, we’re never alone. We are inhabited by the people whose living (and dying) shapes ours. That’s one of ether’s lessons.

 

From the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson).

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